Setting a Scene: A Creative Writing Excercise

DCP_0039In an earlier post, I talked about using an image diary as a writing exercise. Writing down a scene is a similar process: you pick a scene from your daily life, take a moment, and describe what you see. For instance, you might take a break from cleaning your garage to describe the way that tools and spare bits of lumber are arranged on the far wall next to the workbench.

This exercise is the writer’s equivalent of an an artist drawing a still life for practice. In both instances, you’re fine-tuning the way you communicate a group of images to an audience. Many writers find scene-setting to be a difficult task when composing a creative work. It’s easy to use too little or too much detail, and language can seem like an inadequate tool for conveying a sense of space or form. However, with practice, you’ll find that it gets easier and easier to give your reader a good sense of where the story is happening.

When you practice setting a scene by describing scenes from life, pay attention to efficiency of language as well as elegance of language. You want the reader’s attention to be gripped by the images themselves, not the florid language you’ve chosen to describe them. It may take some time to get settled into a cadence that flows beautifully but still gets the job done. As with all writing exercises, practice really makes perfect when describing scenes from life.

You can complete this exercise in any setting, from a beautiful riverbank to your office’s break room. The important thing is to keep at it until you’ve developed a good sense of what you need to convey when you describe your setting to your reader. Learning to set a scene with efficient and beautiful language is a key step to becoming a great writer.

Setting the scene


You can literally choose anywhere

Until relatively recently, any book which involved ‘exotic’ settings (anything from a tense Len Deighton Cold War spy exchange across the Glienicke Brücke on a cold November dawn to a raw and tempestuous Wilbur Smith romance backdropped by the wild Witwatersrand), would either require the author to go on expensive trips or to undertake extensive research into their book’s proposed location(s). Assuming, of course, that the location isn’t somewhere they’ve actually resided.

Nowadays, you don’t even need to leave the relative comforts of your home-office. With Google Street View, Youtube videos, and endless images, there’s no excuse whatsoever for not getting a present-day setting perfect – even down to the colour of the signs in shops, the exact location of manhole covers, lighting columns and so forth. It’s all there – just a few clicks away.

Unfortunately, it’s too easy to become ‘too accurate’. Those minutiae can be your foe as well as your friend because anything you can see, so too can your reader. In a nutshell, you ain’t telling them anything new. This is why you need to take a step back when describing the setting. Rather than answering the question “What does the setting look like in 300 dpi resolution?”, ask yourself “How would this look as a watercolour?” As an author, your job is to create an image, a feeling for both your characters and your place.

It doesn’t matter that the little café your star-crossed lovers meet at is actually a halal butchers in real life, what’s important is that the sort of café you describe is in keeping with the locale. How would it look AS a café? What would fit into the area?

Save the photography for the cover image – work on the artistry.

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